Russia - Plutonium Investigation n°12/13

Plutonium accountancy and control

With its huge inventory of nuclear materials Russia has a massive problem in accurate accountancy and control at its disparate nuclear sites, and over its extensive transport routes. This has been recognised in a number of bilateral and multilateral deals it has concluded with foreign experts and international bodies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

On 23 July 1997 the then US Energy Secretary Federico Peña signed a joint statement with the then Russian Minister of Atomic Energy, Viktor Mikhailov, extending a 1994 bilateral US-Russia accord covering over forty nuclear facilities in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States in a nuclear material protection, control and accounting program aimed at preventing theft of nuclear materials and weapons, by improving physical protection in fences, security sensors, portal monitors, radiation detectors, and accounting procedures. Research labs were also covered in a parallel accord with the Kurtchatov Institute, which also covers enhancing environmental safety and plutonium disposition options. [See Box on page 6 for more details on US-Russia co-operation since]

In April 1998 a center was opened in Obninsk to keep better track of Russia's stockpiles of uranium and plutonium. "We're not inventing anything new here," said Marc Cuypers, deputy director of the European Commission's Institute for Systems, Information and Safety. "It's a lot like a supermarket, except that our material happens to be extremely dangerous."

The Russian Methodological and Training Center, a joint project of Minatom, the U.S. Department of Energy and the European Commission got under way in 1995, when Russia was rife with reports of smuggling of uranium and plutonium after the weakening of physical protection measures, safeguards and general economic conditions with the fall of the Soviet Union.

While Russian officials insist weapons-grade nuclear material has never been stolen or sold, they do admit there were at least 30 thefts of radioactive substances in 1992-95 alone. Since then the smuggling of radioactive substances like cesium or cobalt has supposedly been stopped essentially by an internal information campaign in Russian nuclear establishments highlighting the fact that there was simply no market for this kind of material. However, the major concern of Russian officials interviewed by Plutonium Investigation is the potential trafficking on the Eastern borders (like to Iran) of weapons usable materials.

Minister Adamov has even admitted openly that Russia's borders have become for all practical purposes "transparent", saying "the weakening of our ability to manage nuclear material has been immeasurable." By introducing the Moscow center, Russian leaders hope to create "a radical break in technology, a change to modern means" that will close those borders to illegal and dangerous trade, Adamov said.

There have been many instances alleging that plutonium from Russsia has been smuggled abroad, for example in August 1998 six grams of plutonium were seized and eight people apprehended by Turkish police when they tried to sell the material for US$ 1 million. Although it is technically possible to trace back to source by using isotopic 'fingerprint' techniques the origin of plutonium samples, this procedure is not always used by investigators to clear up plutonium smuggling cases.

The facility aims to train specialists to accurately measure, to a 0.1 percent margin of error, the weight, chemical content, and isotope levels of plutonium or uranium. The Russian nuclear operators are now confident of keeping track of plutonium, protecting it and developing skills to use computers that assign each nuclear material item a bar code. Participants say the center - and possible facilities like it in the future - will improve Russia's system of accounting for nuclear material to international standards. Full legislation is required in the Duma to provide the framework laws to cover nuclear stockpile management. At the Uranium Institute Annual Conference in September 1998 in London, Minatom minister Adamov, asserted that computerised inventory control techniques were now fully in place at Russian nuclear sites.

In 1994 the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) opened an office in Moscow to assist in combating international crime.

At the IAEA's General Conference on 22 September 1998, a statement on behalf of Russia, the United States and the IAEA was issued reviewing progress made under a joint initiative inaugurated by their predecessors in 1996 to investigate technical, legal and financial issues associated with IAEA verification of weapon-origin fissile material designated as no longer required for defense purposes.

It covered developments by Russia to develop acceptable methods and technology for transparency measures, including appropriate international verification measures. It asserted that during the past two years, substantial progress had been made under the trilateral initiative toward resolving technical problems associated with IAEA verification of classified forms of plutonium, which could include nuclear weapon components. Together with integrated monitoring capabilities, these verification measurements would permit the IAEA to conclude that weapon-origin fissile materials submitted to verification remain removed from use in nuclear weapon programs.

Minister Adamov invited the United States and the IAEA to send experts during the next year to workshops at Minatom facilities in Russia at Arzamas-16 and at the Mayak Production Association. In addition to work on technical issues, the parties are seeking to develop a model verification agreement. Using that model as the basis for negotiations, the IAEA verification regime being created for weapon-origin fissile materials will be implemented through a bilateral agreement between the IAEA and each State, covering verification any weapon-origin fissile material, or any other fissile material released from defense programs in the two States.

The parties are also considering options for financial arrangements. One option is an IAEA Nuclear Arms Control Verification Fund, proposed by its Director-General.

The three parties agreed that work over the next year would proceed for verification activities to commence as needed. They agreed that the three Principals would meet again in September 1999 to review progress and plan the next steps in this initiative. As part of the bilateral co-operation, in November 1998 a team of senior U.S. officials got their first look at a vast storage site being built at Mayak - with American help - to prevent 6,000 bombs' worth of Russian nuclear material falling into unauthorised hands. The unique Mayak Fissile Material Storage Facility is planned to be ready to receive the first plutonium and weapons-grade uranium in 2002. When full, the storage depot will hold 25,000 containers in house-high steel tube "nests" encased in concrete inside a building the size of an aircraft hangar, according to a Reuters report. There will eventually be a second depot alongside. The nuclear material will be delivered by rail and the aim is to store it indefinitely. Senator Richard Lugar, one of the delegation - who set up the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program in 1991 along with Senator Sam Nunn, said - "Our Department of Energy and Department of Defence have worked with officials here to bring that security. We have observed it physically and we are impressed."

Congress has provided US$222 million for the project and is thought likely to top that up when necessary. This scheme is not seen as gifts to the Russians by the US administration, rather as "gifts to ourselves and to the world." Mayak spokesman Yevgeny Ryzhkov asserted: "We pay great attention to security. There have been no cases of fissile material being lost or stolen." This reassurance clearly runs counter to minister Adamov's expressed concerns Ryzhkov said Mayak employees earned on average US$100 a month and, unlike elsewhere in Russia, were mostly paid on time. He said to his knowledge 'no key scientists had moved abroad.'

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